Nate Ryan

NASCAR

NASCAR says noose found in garage stall of Bubba Wallace’s team

25 Comments

In a statement late Sunday night, NASCAR said a noose was found in the garage stall of Bubba Wallace‘s Richard Petty Motorsports team before the postponed Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

“We are angry and outraged, and cannot state strongly enough how seriously we take this heinous act,” the NASCAR statement read. “We have launched an immediate investigation, and will do everything we can to identify the person(s) responsible and eliminate them from the sport.

“As we have stated unequivocally, there is no place for racism in NASCAR, and this act only strengthens our resolve to make the sport open and welcoming to all.”

MORE: Alabama Governor “appalled” at “vile act” against Bubba Wallace

MORE: Athletes from various sports show support for Bubba Wallace

In a statement Monday from U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town, he said: “The U.S. Attorney’s office for the Northern District of Alabama, FBI and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division are reviewing the situation surrounding the noose that was found in Bubba Wallace’s garage to determine whether there are violations of federal law. Regardless of whether federal charges can be brought, this type of action has no place in our society.”

NASCAR recently banned the Confederate flag from its racetracks shortly after Wallace, the only Black driver in the Cup Series, lobbied for their removal.

Wallace posted a tweet addressing the news shortly after NASCAR’s statement.

Here’s the full statement from NASCAR:

Late this afternoon, NASCAR was made aware that a noose was found in the garage stall of the 43 team. We are angry and outraged, and cannot state strongly enough how seriously we take this heinous act. We have launched an immediate investigation, and will do everything we can to identify the person(s) responsible and eliminate them from the sport. As we have stated unequivocally, there is no place for racism in NASCAR, and this act only strengthens our resolve to make the sport open and welcoming to all.

Deep dish: Recalling 19 seasons of NASCAR at Chicagoland Speedway

1 Comment

Scuffles in the pits, furious last-lap battles, game-changing announcements and news conferences.

Chicagoland Speedway has delivered some memorable moments over the past two decades.

While it sometimes has been lumped in with the 1.5-mile sameness on the schedule, much has happened in the cornfields about an hour southwest of downtown Chicago.

Who knows what might have been in store for NASCAR’s premier series Sunday, which was the original date for the Cup Series’ annual visit to Joliet, Illinois, before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic wiped it off the slate.

CUP AT TALLADEGA: All the details for Sunday’s race

CONSTANT OF CHANGE: Brad Keselowski on beating Talladega

It might be difficult to reflect with everything else happening in NASCAR and the world, though.

“I think everybody is just so head down just trying to get through everything that’s been thrown at us every day and every week,” Brad Keselowski, who won at Chicagoland in 2012 and ‘14, said this week. “It’s so hard to have any perspective right now. I think that whether it’s virus or protests and that’s happening globally, then we have our own little focus world of at the racetrack and trying to win and trying to overcome no practice.

Brad Keselowski celebrates after winning the Sept. 14 2014 race at Chicagoland Speedway.

“I’ve got to do a health screening every other day. I don’t know where I’m supposed to be, I don’t have any help at the racetrack. It’s a complete mess and we’re all just trying to kind of live through the days. I think somebody brought up on Twitter about not going to Sonoma. That hadn’t even crossed my mind, not even in the faintest. People ask me what day it is, and I have no idea what day it is.

“So it’s really hard to have any context to a lot of what’s going on. I’m trying, we’re all trying, but when it comes to things like trying to put missing Chicago in perspective it’s like, ‘I’m just trying to make it to Talladega.’ ”

Before turning attention to 500 miles Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, it seems worthy for a speedy loop through the highlights of Chicagoland Speedway, which opened in 2001 but faces a cloudier future.

While Keselowski and others are hoping the 2021 schedule will include a stop in The Windy City, NASCAR already has announced one new track (Nashville Superspeedway) and seems to be considering other fresh markets and venues, too, as it explores midweek races, streamlined schedules and other efficiencies discovered since the schedule was restarted May 17.

“Whether it’s different tracks, different venues, different schedules, setups, rosters, I’m all ears,” Keselowski said. “I just want what’s best for this sport and without being able to see all the data to speak to 100 percent knowledge base, I would say that the knowledge base that I do have there are a lot of things I like and one of them is Chicago.”

While we await the decision on a 20th season of NASCAR at Chicagoland Speedway, here are 19 of the more important, irreverent and intense moments in the track’s racing history from 2001-19 (which also includes IndyCar):

1. The “Slide Job”: The July 1, 2018 duel between Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson simply ranks as among the best full-contact fights for a victory in NASCAR history. That it was punctuated by the debut of a new NASCAR on NBC broadcaster’s exuberant call of the action only added to the lore. The race also was memorable with “The Big Three” of Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all involved in the highlights and showcasing their championship mettle.

2. Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne square off: A mentor-pupil relationship was tested when Tony Stewart wrecked Cup rookie Kasey Kahne out of the lead. Tommy Baldwin, Kahne’s crew chief, led his team to Stewart’s pit and a scuffle briefly ensued after which Ray Evernham vowed to “have 10 minutes alone with Tony Stewart and I’ll handle this by myself.” Oh by the way, Stewart won the July 11, 2004 race, his first victory of the season.

Matt Kenseth shortly before being bumped from the lead by Jeff Gordon in the July 9, 2006 race at Chicagoland Speedway (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images).

3. Jeff Gordon vs. Matt Kenseth: In a feud that had started four months earlier with a bump and a shove at Bristol Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon spun Matt Kenseth out of the lead and led the final seven laps of a July 9, 2006 victory. “He should have expected some action,” Gordon said. “Because of what happened in Bristol, you better believe I was going to make his life difficult.” Said Kenseth: “That wasn’t an accident,” said Kenseth, a Cambridge, Wis., native racing at the track closest to his hometown. “He just ran over me.”

4. Runaway orange on the frontstretch: Tropicana sponsored the first four Cup races at Chicagoland Speedway but was most well-known for an Xfinity qualifying highlight on July 9, 2004. As driver Todd Szegedy began his lap, he nearly ran into a 20-foot-high inflatable orange with a red and white straw that broke loose from its moorings and caught a breeze on the frontstretch. “I used to like orange juice, now it almost killed me,” Szegedy said. “It would have been neat if it would have hooked onto my car.”

5. IndyCar by a nose: In the closest finish in the history of the NTT IndyCar Series, Sam Hornish Jr. nipped Al Unser Jr. by 0.0024 seconds Sept. 8, 2002 at Chicagoland Speedway. Tight finishes in Joliet, Illinois, were a hallmark for IndyCar, which raced there from 2001-10 and also recorded its second-closest finish (Helio Castroneves by 0.0033 over Scott Dixon on Sept. 7, 2008) and fourth-closest finish (Ryan Briscoe by 0.0077 over Dixon on Aug. 29, 2009) at the 1.5-mile oval.

6. A historic baker’s dozen: Chicago is known for a checkered history of political controversies and scandals, so it was only fitting that one of NASCAR’s worst happened here. NASCAR chairman Brian France announced the Sept. 13, 2013 addition of Jeff Gordon as a 13th driver to the playoff field after a review of the race manipulation in the regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway. The following day, France gathered crew chiefs, drivers and car owners to read them the riot act about future race tampering.

Team owner Chip Ganassi (left) and NASCAR president Mike Helton helped welcome Juan Pablo Montoya to the Cup Series (Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR).

7. International appeal: The buzz began as soon as the Chicagoland garage opened Sunday morning, July 9, 2006. A Formula One winner was coming directly to NASCAR? And not the IndyCar Series where he’d made his fame? A few hours later, Juan Pablo Montoya officially was announced as Chip Ganassi Racing’s new driver for 2007. “It’s a historic announcement to have someone of his international success and caliber,” NASCAR president Mike Helton said. “It simply transcends every effort NASCAR has been involved in for 58 years to make it desirable, diverse and international. Anybody who follows motor sports naturally would know his name.” Montoya called it “my toughest challenge ever,” and he was right. Though the Colombian won twice, he never consistently contended over seven Cup seasons.

8. No puppet show allowed: In one of the more amusing chapters in Chicagoland history, several Cup teams were banned from having Muppets characters in their pits in a paint scheme sponsorship tied to the 25th anniversary of “The Muppet Show.” Track officials said it was because Chicagoland wasn’t part of the promotion. “Anybody want to let the Muppets out of jail?” Bill Elliott asked after qualifying third with a No. 9 Dodge that had the Swedish Chef on its hood.

9. Justin Labonte’s miracle Xfinity victory: In perhaps the biggest upset in track history, Justin Labonte started 34th, fell a lap down and won on a fuel mileage gambit when Mike Wallace ran out of gas on the last lap. Labonte, who hadn’t led a lap or finished in the top 10 of 30 previous Xfinity starts, celebrated in a low-key manner after the July 10, 2004 race. He held the checkered flag out his window on a victory lap saluting his part-time team, which had eight employees and was owned by his two-time Cup champion father. “This is bigger than any win I’ve ever had,” Terry Labonte said.

Kyle Busch passes Jimmie Johnson on the final restart July 12, 2008 at Chicagoland Speedway (Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR).

10. A memorable restart: The odds seemed stacked against Kyle Busch on a two-lap shootout that ended the first Cup night race at Chicagoland. Busch was running second to Jimmie Johnson, two championships into his run of five consecutive. But at the final green flag on July 12, 2008, Busch swung his No. 18 to the outside of Johnson’s No. 48 and made it stick for the seventh of a series-high eight victories in 2008. Busch who radioed his team in resignation while chasing Johnson earlier, told his crew, “I appreciate you guys sticking with me. I know I’m a pain in the ass sometimes, but you’ll have that in a punk.”

11. The pass of the season: With extraordinary finesse, Brad Keselowski split the middle between the top two cars of Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson and led the final 17 laps to win the Sept. 14, 2014 playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway. “I just saw a hole and I went for it,” the Team Penske driver said. “(Harvick) and (Larson) were racing really hard. It just opened a hole. I didn’t know if my car would stick, but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t try it.”

Tony Stewart celebrates after winning Sept. 19, 2011 (Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR).

12. Smoke rises: Four days after proclaiming he wasn’t a contender for the championship, Tony Stewart won Sept. 19, 2011 (held on a Monday afternoon) as Chicagoland opened the Cup playoffs for the first time. It was the first victory of the year for Stewart, who won five of the final 10 races for his third championship.

13. First-time winner: For the second consecutive year, Larson came up on the short end of a memorable outcome as Alex Bowman finally fulfilled the promise of being hired by Hendrick Motorsports. After losing the lead to Larson for two laps, Bowman regained it with five laps remaining in the June 30, 2019 race.

14. A fiery wreck: In the track’s scariest crash, Ryan Briscoe briefly went airborne and landed on the backstretch SAFER barrier in a fireball that split his car in half. Briscoe thankfully survived but broke his shoulders in the Sept. 11, 2005 wreck and spent a week in the hospital recovering. He returned to win at the track four years later.

David Reutimann and Rodney Childers celebrate their victory (Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR).

15. Best in class: Though the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 in 2009 was his first victory, the July 10, 2010 triumph at Chicagoland Speedway will be remembered as David Reutimann’s greatest victory. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver and crew chief Rodney Childers had the best car start to finish, beating Jeff Gordon straight up. “I felt like there was a dark cloud hanging over our head with that win at the 600,” Reutimann said. “Everybody just says, ‘Yeah, you guys won, but .. ‘Now I’m just like, ‘OK, here you go, just leave me alone. We won the race.”

16. Junior’s achievement: After the first half of a season that wrecked his confidence, Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored an out-of-the-blue victory July 10, 2005 with Steve Hmiel, his third crew chief in six months. It would be Earnhardt’s lone Cup triumph that season. “It’s a long time coming,” he said. “It’s real emotional . . . more than I can handle right now. With all the darts thrown at these guys this year. It’s just awesome.”

Jimmie Johnson in 2001(ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images).

17. Quiet breakthrough: The first Xfinity race at Chicagoland Speedway was also the first NASCAR victory for a legend. Jimmie Johnson was an unheralded driver for Herzog Motorsports when he led the final 43 laps to win July 14, 2001. Within three months, he was hired to drive the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports, and the rest is history.

18. Another first-timer: Casey Mears already had been a Cup driver for four seasons when he scored his only career Xfinity victory in a fuel-mileage play to lead the final 47 laps July 8, 2006 at Chicagoland Speedway. It came a month after Mears had been hired by Hendrick for the 2007 season, in which he’d get his final victory (the Coca-Cola 600).

19. Lights, camera, action: Chicagoland’s proximity to the country’s third-largest media market often has meant drawing a larger share of Hollywood stars plugging their work. During the July 2006 weekend, it was Will Ferrell and the cast of “Talladega Nights” promoting the NASCAR-themed movie released that summer. Ferrell got a prerace ride in a stock car driven by Wally Dallenbach Jr. “I almost threw up doing the donuts,” Ferrell said. “A mixture of G forces and burning rubber after eating eggs is not the best.”

Actor Will Ferrell gives a  thumbs up before taking a lap with Wally Dallenbach Jr. in the pace car at Chicagoland Speedway (Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR),

Stewart-Haas, Penske employees tested positive for COVID-19

Jason Smith/Getty Images
Leave a comment

UPDATE: Team Penske announced in a statement Saturday afternoon that one of its team members tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week and “recovered without any further symptoms” after quarantining all week.

“Earlier this week, Team Penske had one of its team members report positive for COVID-19.  This employee has been in quarantine all week and has recovered without any further symptoms. Due to the team’s stringent protocols, only a few of our personnel had reason to quarantine and none of those individuals are experiencing any symptoms. The identities of those impacted, along with additional details, will not be released due to privacy concerns.”

Original story follows:

Stewart-Haas Racing confirmed Friday night that two employees at its Kannapolis, North Carolina, race shop had tested positive for the COVID-19 novel coronavirus.

The news initially was reported by Jeff Gluck and Jordan Bianchi of The Athletic. Citing multiple people familiar with the situation, their story reported a number of employees who could have come into contact with their infected co-workers were sent home Tuesday from SHR’s shop and hadn’t returned.

Stewart-Haas Racing sent a statement to multiple news outlets:

“Stewart-Haas Racing has experienced two positive COVID-19 test results, neither of which involve personnel who travel to race events. Robust protocols have been in place and continue to be followed diligently to mitigate the spread of the virus while maintaining the health and safety of all members of the organization and greater community.”

Stewart-Haas Racing is the first NASCAR team to confirm positive COVID-19 tests.

Since restarting its season May 17, NASCAR has conducted health screenings at races without testing for COVID-19.

NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell was asked this Monday about the sanctioning body’s protocols and whether anyone had tested positive for COVID-19.

“Everything has been going, actually, remarkably smooth, in terms of the protocols that have been set in place,” O’Donnell said. “We’ve certainly had some folks who may have presented some symptoms that we’ve turned away early. That’s up to them to disclose if there were any issues in terms of did someone have COVID or not, but I would say (the protocols have) worked 100% according to plan.

“We’ve not had challenges during an event where anything has come up where we’ve had to react during the hours that the garage was open. It’s been if there were any issues prior to someone entering the facility, which have been very minimal.

“We expect there will be some challenges. We need to continue to do our due diligence. We need to continue to wear our masks. We need to continue to follow the protocols.”

Nate Ryan’s ballot for the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s 2021 class

Leave a comment

Nate Ryan cast a ballot June 9 for the NASCAR Hall of Fame as NBC Sports’ digital representative.

It’s the 12th consecutive year of voting for Ryan, who is one of 65 members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame voting panel (plus one online vote determined by fans).

The NASCAR Hall of Fame induction process has changed. From 2010-20, the five highest vote-getters annually were inducted from a list of 20 to 25 nominees.

This year, the ballot consisted of two categories: Modern Era (10 nominees) and Pioneer (five nominees). Two inductees were chosen from the Modern Era ballot and one from Pioneer (members of the voting panel each voted for two Modern Era candidates and one Pioneer candidate).

Ryan’s ballot for the 12th class (followed by his ballot for each of the preceding 11 years, which included six at USA TODAY Sports):

MODERN ERA

  1. Kirk Shelmerdine: Four-time champion crew chief for Dale Earnhardt (1986-87, ’90-91). As a crew chief, he guided teams to 46 Cup victories and 15 pole positions in 460 starts from 1977-92. Pursued a driving career after retiring as a crew chief, scoring three ARCA victories and finishing 20th in the 2006 Daytona 500.
  2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: A two-time Daytona 500 winner (2004, ’14) who had 26 victories and 15 pole positions in 631 Cup starts from 1999-2017 after winning consecutive Xfinity championships in ’98-99. Voted Most Popular Driver 15 times, he moved to the NASCAR on NBC broadcast team in 2018.

PIONEER

Jake Elder: “Suitcase Jake” earned a nickname for moving on often, but he enjoyed success with every team he joined. He was the crew chief for Mario Andretti’s victory in the 1967 Daytona 500 and won consecutive Cup championships with David Pearson in 1968-69. In 448 Cup starts as a crew chief, he had 43 victories and 36 poles.

LANDMARK AWARD

Janet Guthrie. She finished 15th in the 1976 World 600 in her Cup debut and also was the first woman in the Daytona 500 in 1977. She became the first woman to lead a lap in Cup at Ontario Motor Speedway in October 1977.


Ryan’s NASCAR Hall of Fame ballots:

2010: Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, David Pearson, Bill France Jr.

2011: Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Lee Petty

2012: Waltrip, Yarborough, Dale Inman, Raymond Parks, Curtis Turner

2013: Fireball Roberts, Turner, Fred Lorenzen, Herb Thomas, Tim Flock

2014: Roberts, Turner, Lorenzen, Flock, Joe Weatherly

2015: Lorenzen, Turner, Weatherly, O. Bruton Smith, Rick Hendrick

2016: Turner, Smith, Hendrick, Ray Evernham, Bobby Isaac

2017: Hendrick, Evernham, Benny Parsons, Parks, Red Byron

2018: Evernham, Byron, Robert Yates, Alan Kulwicki, Buddy Baker

2019: Jeff Gordon, Kulwicki, Baker, Davey Allison, Jack Roush

2020: Tony Stewart, Baker, Waddell Wilson, Joe Gibbs

2021 Modern Era: Kirk Shelmderine, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Pioneer: Jake Elder.

LANDMARK

2015: Raymond Parks

2016: Raymond Parks

2017: Raymond Parks

2018: Ralph Seagraves

2019: Jim Hunter

2020: Ralph Seagraves

2021: Janet Guthrie

Ryan: NASCAR return another sign of Darlington’s resilience, renaissance

Leave a comment

They tried to give up on the old girl too soon.

“The Lady in Black,” the moniker given to Darlington Raceway by sportswriter Benny Phillips more than 50 years ago, is meant to reference the fearsome qualities of the most formidable racetrack in NASCAR

But it also could be applied to how often Darlington once seemed dressed for death’s door.

NASCAR stripped a race away from its first superspeedway (which opened in 1950 with a 75-car field). It ripped away its tradition-steeped Labor Day weekend (and the accompanying parade with Clint Eastwood once serving as a grand marshal).

Even the signature Southern 500 — synonymous with the South Carolina region known as the Pee Dee — disappeared for a few seasons in the mid-2000s.

But slowly (aside from a second annual Cup race), it’s all come back.

A Buck Baker tribute car was on display during the Sept. 5, 2015 return of the Southern 500 Parade in Darlington (Jonathan Moore/Getty Images).

The Southern 500.

The Labor Day race weekend (with a wildly popular new throwback tradition).

The parade through the streets of a city with roughly 6,000 people.

And now NASCAR is back, too.

At Darlington.

The 1.366-mile oval will be the epicenter not only of stock-car racing but major-league sports in the United States over a four-day stretch that never would have seemed possible even a few years ago.

Left to the buzzards when the Cup Series chased the almighty dollar and the promise of new fans a couple of decades ago, Darlington has become a lifeline to rescue NASCAR from the brink starting Sunday.

If it wasn’t so readily usable because of its proximity — along with Charlotte Motor Speedway — to help play host to four Cup races in 11 days and alleviate a backlog of 32 races that still need to be completed in the next six months, there would be a much less rosy tune coming from NASCAR executives in Daytona Beach and Charlotte.

Instead, they are singing the praises of Darlington.

“You look at unintended consequences, or in this instance, maybe opportunities,” senior vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said during a NASCAR America at Home episode Friday (video above). “Not only is Darlington there and available. It’s an iconic racetrack. It goes back with our roots. Of all the places you can open up, it’s a win-win for everybody. It’s got that historic atmosphere. Drivers love to race there and want to win there as well.

“So it became crucial to us to go there not once but twice, race under the lights and then be able to go to Charlotte. And both those venues really enabled us to keep much of the schedule intact on the back half because we’re able to pack those (races) within two weeks.”


There’s been a misconception that NASCAR is being opportunistic as among the first major sports to wave the green flag. President Steve Phelps and others have trumpeted the ancillary benefits of enjoying a much brighter spotlight Sunday.

But to suggest it’s the primary thrust of NASCAR restarting is as reductive as saying Kyle Busch won the 2019 championship because he had the fastest car at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

This is much less about seizing the moment and much more about survival.

Brad Keselowski, in his throwback No. 2 firesuit, celebrates after winning the 2018 Southern 500 (Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images).

Motorsports generally isn’t built to withstand long periods of inactivity. Unlike the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, there aren’t dozens of teams owned by deep-pocketed billionaires who can wait out a shutdown. There aren’t coffers stuffed to the brim with emergency reserves of cash.

NASCAR and many other series essentially have two options: Race as soon as humanly possible, or risk extinction by remaining idle.

It’s why we’re seeing virtually every other form of motorsport (IndyCar, IMSA, Supercross, World of Outlaws, NHRA, MotoAmerica, short tracks, etc.) announce plans and schedules while the rest of the big leagues officially are mum on their next steps.

As always with the “Track Too Tough to Tame,” there is a looming danger here.

Some sports probably don’t want to win the race to be first to return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

NASCAR has built a thorough logistical playbook and will have severe restrictions on access Sunday. But the sanctioning body will be flying as blindly into its first race without fans in 72 years as the drivers will be entering Turn 1 without practice or qualifying.

“It’s a big responsibility that we take very seriously because we know we must get it right,” Darlington Raceway president Kerry Tharp told NBC Sports. “There’s been a lot of planning, organization and details going into this.

“This entire region and the state of South Carolina all the way to the top is very humbled and very excited that we’re able to do this. What better place in my mind to come back racing than a track that is so steeped in history and tradition?”

It’s been a trendsetter, too, since Harold Brasington built the egg-shaped oval more than seven decades ago.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway laid the groundwork for superspeedways in this country, but it’s hard to imagine a Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway if Darlington hadn’t been the blueprint for the South.

“Darlington changed the sport in 1950,” Kyle Petty said on a recent episode of NASCAR America at Home. “Darlington has an opportunity to change the sport again in 2020. This may be a glimpse into the future of how NASCAR races are run moving forward (without practice or qualifying), moving from this date to 2021 and 2022. This little place in South Carolina has changed the sport two times.”

It’s another case of pride for Tharp, a Kentucky native who proudly has called South Carolina home for 35 years.

“I think Darlington exemplifies the state in which it is located in,” Tharp said. “South Carolina is a very gritty and resilient state in my mind. It’s a handshake state. You shake somebody’s hand, and they give you their word, they’re going to live up to it. Those are the kind of people in this state.”


That self-determination also is shaded by some bloodshed and ugliness stemming from the stir of Antebellum echoes in the South Shall Rise Again.

The Civil War started at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. It was the first state to secede from the Union. The Confederate flag flew on the grounds of the South Carolina State House in Columbia until five years ago (after Dylann Roof entered an African-American church in Charleston and slaughtered nine people).

There also are many indicators of its resilience as a unifier.

South Carolina has survived countless hurricanes. After many body blows to its economy, it remains among the country’s poorer states, but its income growth and employment numbers rapidly were improving pre-pandemic. The state made bold shifts to tourism and major manufacturing, and Greenville-Spartanburg and Charleston became bustling centers of growth.

It could be argued that the handling of COVID-19 is another example of its bounce-back spirit. In Senate testimony Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci praised South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster’s response as a model for reopening that “I almost would want to clone.”

Gov. McMaster also has been instrumental in ensuring NASCAR could restart at Darlington – another clear sign that some fans’ ill will of nearly 20 years ago has long subsided.

During what seemed would be the last Labor Day race weekend at Darlington in 2003, T-shirts reading “Money Talks, Tradition Walks” dotted the grandstands. Longtime attendees angrily described the betrayal of moving the weekend to Auto Club Speedway in Southern California as a slap in the face.

“Tradition is something NASCAR doesn’t believe in anymore,” one local told NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long at the time. “The so-called rednecks who made this sport can’t go there anymore. NASCAR needs to remember who made them.”

Brad Keselowski, in a throwback No. 2 Miller Lite Ford, races William Byron, driving a No. 24 Hendrick City Chevrolet car, in two of the throwback paint schemes from last year’s Southern 500 (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images).

Those origins eventually were recognized, particularly with the Southern 500 being returned to Labor Day weekend since 2015. In a grassroots renaissance campaign that caught fire in the first year, Cup and Xfinity teams rolled out achingly crafted tributes to NASCAR history that have become the most highly anticipated paint schemes of the season.

“When two races went down to one, the fans and that community and this racetrack stood tall,” Tharp said. “And the crowds were still here. The stands were still full or nearly full. And then when the return to Labor Day, coupled with the throwback platform, came about six years ago, it just solidified the fact that Darlington is indeed one of the crown jewels of the sport.”

And a crown jewel of the state’s sports scene. The college football programs of Clemson and South Carolina reign supreme, of course, and Hilton Head Island has a prestigious golf tournament.

Yet Darlington remains beloved as South Carolina’s literal diamond in the rough.

“You come rolling down Highway 151 from the North Carolina area, and you go through some fields and farmland,” Tharp said. “And all of a sudden, you’re up on a really cool iconic racetrack. Darlington. It’s just a special place in a lot of people’s minds.”

And this Sunday, it’ll be a savior for NASCAR.

The Lady is Back.

Fans cheered during the return of the Southern 500 parade Sept. 5, 2015 in Darlington, S.C. (Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)